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Authors: Joan Smith

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BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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“You are mistaken. It makes a good deal of difference. Until a young lady is married, she must behave with circumspection.”

“Is that a dig at me and Fairly?”

“If the shoe fits...”

As they then met up with the Montagues, Cicely was unable to give him a setdown.

When the play resumed, Fairly thought over what Cicely had said, not with any view to improving his behavior, but to inventing ruses to engage her sympathy. He considered places they could go together to enjoy a flirtation without jeopardizing her reputation—though still enhancing his own. This visit to the slums had potential. He might arrange for some ruffians to accost them. He could play the hero, safe in the knowledge that the pistol pointed at them was not loaded. It would do his flagging reputation the world of good for a tale like that to make the rounds. Yes, by Jove, the future looked bright.

When the play was over, the party went to the Clarendon Hotel for a sumptuous dinner. Montaigne sat on Cicely’s right side. Fairly managed to grab the seat on her left and spent a good deal of time gazing into her eyes and murmuring out his troubles, especially when Meg carried on with Lord Montague.

Montaigne found he could hardly get a word in edgewise. His temper began to fray. He was not accustomed to being ignored when he took a young lady out, yet to compete for her attention with Fairly was beneath his dignity. He set up a flirtation with Mrs. Warton instead.

Cicely found it all very grand and very decadent—and very useful research—but her eyelids were becoming too heavy to take much note of things. She was extremely tired after her long day and wanted only to return to her lovely bedroom and go to sleep.

When the dinner was finally over, it was one-thirty. She could hardly believe it when Meg said, “Where shall we go now? If we hurry, we can catch a few dances at some ball or rout.”

“It is very late,” Cicely said, suppressing a yawn.

“If you’re tired, Monty will take you home,” Meg said.

“But I wanted a waltz with you, Sissie,” Fairly pouted.

“Try waltzing with your wife,” Montaigne said. “I am taking Sissie home.”

 

Chapter Five

 

“Thank you, Montaigne,” Cicely said, as he led her out to his carriage. “I am burned to the socket. How hard you members of the ton trot, in your vain search for pleasure.”

“Spoken like a true philistine,” he laughed. “But I think you enjoyed the evening. At least Fairly’s braying, to judge by your enthusiastic attention.”

“It’s not every day I get to see a lord flirting. He’s pretty smooth.”

Montaigne’s jaw muscles tensed in annoyance. He had already felt apprehensive to see how Meg had rigged Cicely out in the highest kick of fashion. Her appearance suggested a woman of the world—and Fairly was making a spectacle of himself over the chit. This was not at all what Montaigne had had in mind in bringing her to London. As the dinner party was tomorrow evening, however, it hardly seemed worthwhile making a fuss over it. She would be posted back to Elmdale within forty-eight hours.

“New fodder for your writing,” he said.

“I appreciated the experience of attending the theater in the evening. It was enlightening,” she allowed.

“Yes, one doesn’t get that sort of performance in the provinces,” he said with satisfaction.

“No indeed, for when we provincials attend the theater, the performance is limited to the stage. I shall not trespass so far on the truth as to say I enjoyed
King Lear,
for I scarcely heard a word of it. I fear Meg has changed since leaving the abbey.”

“Things are different in London.”

“They certainly are. Do you realize Fairly and Meg are practically on the verge of breaking up?”

“What are you talking about?” he demanded.

“Fairly says she doesn’t understand him, and I believe he is right; or worse, she understands and doesn’t give a tinker’s curse. She thinks of nothing but gowns and balls and those horrid rattles who were surrounding her at the play. Now she has run off to dance until dawn. No wonder she looks so hagged, if she is up this late every night.”

“Things will quiet down when winter sets in. The Fairlys will go to their estate in the country for Christmas, as they did last year.”

“Much good that will do if they’re estranged. Fairly is very eager to set up his nursery. You’re a man of the world, Montaigne. I don’t have to tell you why it is still empty after two years. They’re not sleeping together.”

“Good Lord!” Montaigne exclaimed. His shock had as much to do with Cicely’s blunt speech as with the trouble between Meg and Fairly. He was aware that the first bloom had faded from the romance. Like most married members of the ton, the Fairlys each went their own way a good deal of the time, but Montaigne hadn’t realized the situation had reached this state. Nor did he like that Sissie had taken Fairly’s side in the matter.

“Your sister wants a good talking-to,” she advised him. “I think it would come better from you than from me. The fact is, I think Meg doesn’t care for me as much as she used to. She acts stiffish with me.”

“You have decided Meg is the culprit, have you? Is that why you allowed Fairly to monopolize you all evening?”

“Better his company than those lechers Meg was with, since my escort decided to flirt with the fat—he lady in the puce gown. One of those lechers put his hand on my bottom. But I don’t mean to say the fault is all Meg’s by a long chalk. I told Fairly he drank too much and was inconsiderate. I plan to straighten him out, but Meg’s reformation must come from you.”

Montaigne didn’t know whether to laugh or box her ears. That indignant remark about a hand on her bottom jerked at his funny bone, but of course it was farouche of her to mention it to him. He did not really object to her denigrating her hostess and delivering a lecture to her host, but when she complained of her escort being careless, when he had tried in vain to be with her, that was doing it too brown.

“You aren’t going to singlehandedly change Society in two days, Sissie. You will find your short visit goes more smoothly if you confine your activities to being the author of the novel,” he said. “As to that gown ... I have told Murray you’re a provincial lady. He is not expecting a high flier.”

“Is that how I look?” she asked, pleased as punch with the accusation. “It’s strange, is it not, that all the old clichés are true. In a simple sort of way, clothes
do
make the lady. I never had so many gentlemen ogling me before.”

“An enjoyable experience, to judge by your grin. I would like to think that, in this case, the gown makes the lady look like something she is not. I doubt that rake at the play would have—er—put his hand on your bottom if you had been wearing your own gown.”

“That is probably true. Certainly no gentleman at home ever dared to take such a liberty. And by the way, I was not grinning! At home, they know Papa would give them a sound thrashing if they tried it. Tell me, is this bottom-patting a new fad in London? I wish to know for my next novel.”

“No, it is not. What did you do when it happened?” he asked and listened with considerable interest for her reply.

“I just moved away and gave him a dirty look. I wish I had slapped him, but with so many people around, I disliked to make a fuss. That’s very interesting, is it not? I didn’t even give him a verbal reprimand. I allowed people’s opinion to change my behavior—and character, you know, is only the sum and total of our behavior.” After a frowning pause, she added, “I wonder if that is what has happened to Meg.”

“It is kind of you to look for an excuse, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. Meg has no aversion to having a fuss made over her. Quite the contrary.”

“But to be thought provincial—that’s what I really mean. I feared those people would think me a flat, and it just occurred to me that Meg is only pretending to approve of that sort of license so her new friends will like her. I thoroughly despise them in the individual, but as a group, they intimidated me. I didn’t want to paint myself as being different, unaccustomed to city ways.” A frown seized her brow. “Why should I care what they think?”

“When in Rome. Another of those clichés that so often prove true.”

“Yes, otherwise they wouldn’t be clichés. But you really ought to have encouraged me not to care what they think. I fear you’re a little lax in your morals as well, Montaigne.”

“I thought we had already established my debased morals by my returning Lady Dearborne’s greeting at the play.”

“What kind of a greeting takes ten minutes?” Before he could reply, she continued, “We learn nothing from history.” She gazed solemnly into the darkness. “We know what happened to Rome, since Mr. Gibbon has outlined its decline and fall for us.”

“In six volumes. Don’t tell me you’ve read that monumental work?”

“No, I tried, but it gave me the megrims. I read the old reviews, and an essay about it in the
Tatler.
But we were speaking of Meg. Will you talk to her, Montaigne, and I shall continue working on Fairly?”

“I shall speak to Meg, but about Fairly, Sissie—you shouldn’t allow yourself to become too intimate with him. He’s not the sort of gentleman your papa would want you to go about with.”

“How can you say so? I am a guest under his roof. That already involves a degree of intimacy.”

“To be sure, but you need not go out of your way to be alone with him.”

Montaigne felt a niggling tug at his conscience. He had not given this visit enough consideration. Fairly was known to pitch himself at the head of any pretty lady who gave him the time of day. Montaigne had not thought Sissie would be his type, but since Meg had smartened her up, she looked more sophisticated than she was.

In fact, she looked troublesomely attractive. She had turned several heads at the Clarendon and attracted considerable attention at the play as well. Not less than three gentlemen had mentioned her. “A new Incomparable,” Lord Southern had called her, and Southern was something of a connoisseur.

“He has promised to take me to visit the slums tomorrow afternoon,” she said.

“I was going to take you there!” He felt annoyed, and assured himself if it had been anyone other than Fairly, any perfectly respectable gentleman, he would have been happy to be relieved of the chore.

“You didn’t say so when I hinted. You said how busy you were. I can’t go alone, and I must do my research. In any case, the slums are hardly a spot where he will be making up to me, if that is what you fear.”

“So you do realize his intentions.”

“I realize what you think. I believe he just wants a sympathetic ear to complain about Meg. I know that sort of thing can lead to romance if you let it. Mr. Edwards tried that trick with Anne at home when his wife was carrying on with Squire Higgins. Anne gave him a setdown. We had a good laugh about it. Don’t worry, I shan’t let Fairly get out of hand.”

Her plain speaking reassured him. “Where, in the slums, are you going?”

“He mentioned some place called Seven Dials. It’s in St. Giles-in-the-Fields, I believe he said. An odd name for a place. Does it actually have seven dials?” she asked, ever curious.

“It used to have seven sundials, but they’ve been taken away.”

“Seven, why so many? And why were they removed?”

“I don’t know.” But he did know that it was a dangerous spot to take a lady. Could Fairly be counted on to protect her? “Be sure Fairly takes a few footmen with him.”

The carriage reached Berkeley Square and drew to a stop in front of the Fairly residence.

“This has been a very useful evening,” Cicely said, gathering up her shawl and reticule. “I should make my notes while it is all fresh in my mind, but I may wait until tomorrow morning. Would you like to come in for a cup of cocoa, Montaigne? I should love one, but I’m a little shy to ask Coddle for it. He’s so supercilious.”

Montaigne felt a chuckle rise up in his throat. He had forgotten Sissie’s way of blurting out whatever was on her mind. What would Murray and the literary reviewers make of her?

“I am flattered at your eagerness for my company! I shall brave Coddle’s wrath and demand a cup of cocoa,” he replied.

While they awaited the cocoa, Montaigne noticed that Sissie kept the shawl wrapped tightly around her shoulders.

“It’s a little late to be hiding your charms,” he informed her. “They were on full display while you ate dinner at the Clarendon.”

She laughed and let the shawl fall open. “I feel safe with you. Truth to tell, I have been uncomfortable all evening. I’m not accustomed to being half naked in public. These gowns ladies wear are asking for trouble. That is something else you might mention to Meg.”

“I doubt Fairly would thank me for it,” he said, making a conscious effort to control his eyes, with only limited success.

“We shouldn’t cater to the lowest taste,” she said primly. When she noticed his errant eyes, she added bluntly, “I’d feel more comfortable if you could control
your
eyes, Montaigne. You must have seen hundreds of bosoms by now.”

“True, but a lady’s charms never fail to attract attention. I was mistaken. It is not too late to hide temptation.” He reached over and tied her shawl in a knot under her chin.

When the cocoa arrived, they discussed the dinner party to be held the following evening.

“Tell me something about the reviewers who will be there. Which ones are more influential? I shall be sure to empty the butter boat on them.”

“There will be a Mr. Summers, from the
Quarterly Review.
Murray started the
Quarterly
half a decade ago and has colleagues there. They’ll give
Chaos
a good review. A Mr. Blackwood is starting up a new monthly periodical. The
Edinburgh Review
will be the tough nut to crack, and it’s the most influential of the lot. It takes itself very seriously. They’ll be sending Sir Giles Gresham. They don’t plan to review
Chaos,
but if we can convince them there’s a message in it, they might give us a mention.”

“What do you know of Sir Giles? He’s the one to go after.”

“He’s a scholar of classics. He’ll not be flattered into submission. They’re sending him only to appease Murray.”

BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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